Willow knows best: "Leave me at home with a real cat-sitter instead of taking me to a kennel!"
In my book Your Cat Won’t Do That!, I focused on several topics that arise out of you and your cat’s relationship with your cat-sitter. Now, in this bonus chapter, I want to step back and discuss the broader topic of getting care for your cat while you are away. Specifically, this article will address the most fundamental question of them all: Why exactly do you need a cat-sitter?
To answer this question, first we need to define our terms. In general, I make a distinction between a “cat-sitter” and any other party who may take care of a cat while that kitty’s family is away. In other words, a kennel host or boarder--someone who takes care of your cat in their home or facility, outside your home--does not meet my definition of cat-sitter, even though they too care for cats while their regular companions are out and about.
To me, a cat-sitter is, strictly speaking, someone who comes to your home and offers care for your cat while you are away. This can be a person who visits with your cat at least once a day during your trip (drop-in service), or one who stays with your homebound cat (live-in service). In either case, the sitter performs the daily tasks of feeding and scooping the litter, as well as providing some level of companionship, while your cat stays at home. During my career as a professional cat-sitter, I always preferred to provide live-in service, staying with my client cats for the duration of the human companions’ absence.
Having defined our term “cat-sitter,” we can begin to discuss the reasons why having a dedicated cat-sitter come to your home to watch over your kitties should be the preferred option.
You may consider taking your cat to an establishment that boards her outside the home while you are gone. There can be benefits to this option, particularly if your cat is older or has any special needs; that is a situation where boarding at a vet’s office is a good choice. Nevertheless, I generally believe that boarding is an inferior option, to be used only whe you are unable to find a reliable individual to come to your home and tend to your cat.
For one thing, boarding is likely to be the more expensive option. Any business that has a dedicated facility for housing pets will typically have to charge clients a fee that covers overhead (rent or mortgage, utilities, taxes) in addition to the direct costs of caring for the animals under its protection. Conversely, the home where your cat already lives has no such extra costs to consider; those costs are already rolled into your normal living expenses.
Furthemore, boarding your cat could put her health at risk, in a couple of different ways.
A kennel, even one with a conscientious and careful staff, may not be able to guarantee that your cat won’t be exposed to other animals’ illnesses. If any of the other boarded animals have parasites, your cat may acquire the parasites herself. Similarly, infectious diseases--like the respiratory distress called “shelter-” or “kennel cough”--can be passed along to your kitty. If your cat acquires an affliction while being boarded, that will almost certainly require extra veterinary treatment in the aftermath of your trip. That vet care will add further expense on top of what you have already paid the boarding facility. In the long run, it can be cheaper to simply get a cat-sitter to care for your cat in her home, where outside illnesses are unlikely to be a problem.
The other health threat that can put your cat at risk if you take her to a kennel is stress. It’s always important to remember that cats are territorial creatures; they want to be on their own patch of ground, and any time they are outside the bounds of their home turf they are likely to be nervous, edgy and stressed. Think about how freaked out your cat gets when you have to take her to the vet; now multiply that by every day your cat will be cooped up in a boarding facility guest room (which might be nothing more than a small cage).
If your cat is an older kitty, placing her in that stressful situation can be downright dangerous. Senior cats can have hidden health issues, and cats are so good at hiding their health problems you might not even know something is wrong with her. Adding the stress of time spent away from home, outside her territory and in a strange, possibly hostile-seeming location, could create a tipping point that pushes your kitty toward going “down the drain.” No matter how conscientious a kennel’s staff might be, they can not necessarily protect your cat from the negative impacts of such an inherently stressful situation.
Why take the risk with your cat’s health? Unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, reject the boarding option and get a trustworthy cat-sitter to watch your cat in her own home.
One big factor when you’re deciding if you need a cat-sitter is an obvious one: How long will you be away from home?
If you are going on an overnight trip--say, something less than 36 hours in total--the good news is, you probably don’t need to have a cat-sitter come over to your home. Most cats will be perfectly fine if they are left on their own for a brief period, so long as you leave them a clean litter box (or two, or three) and plenty of food and water. Your cats undoubtedly appreciate your companionship, but most can endure your short-term absence without much of a problem.
Note that this general rule does not apply when you have cats that have any sort of special needs. For instance, if there is a cat in your household that needs regular health care, such as shots or pills, then it is imperative that your cat have someone who can administer that care while you are away, even for a short period of time. (See “Chapter 4: If You Don’t Have Your Health…” in YCWDT! for more information on what kind of health care you can expect your cat-sitter to provide for your cat.)
Anything longer than a 36-hour absence will require a sitter to come over and make sure your cat is OK. This is especially true if your cat is either very young or very old. With very young cats--kittens or adolescent cats--you don’t want to leave them to their own devices in your home for too long, or else you may come back to total chaos. Some young cats will behave themselves while you’re gone, but others will take advantage of your absence to go on “crime sprees” that will leave destruction in their wake. (I’m reminded of the example of my former client Puffin, who earned the nickname “Pussy Riot” for her bad behavior during her awkward adolescence. You can read about young Puffin’s antisocial ways on Page 91 of YCWDT!) It’s always best to have a sitter present if you are going to leave very young cats at home for any length of time--to serve as a prison guard, if nothing else!
As with boarding your cat, leaving your senior cat alone for any length of time should be strictly avoided. Many cats have a period of failing health, with obvious effects, before they reach the end. Even so, it can be impossible to know if your senior cat is in a vulnerable state before you leave for a trip. My preference was always for my human clients to stay at home with their elderly cats, even if it meant I did not get paid to visit with them. The last thing I ever wanted was to have a client cat pass away during one of my sitting gigs.
If staying home is simply not an option, having a sitter stay with your senior cat, even for a brief, overnight visit, provides the assurance that, if something untoward happens to your elderly kitty, someone will be there to act on her behalf during what could be the crucial moments that decide whether she runs out of her nine lives or not.
Seeing to kitty’s health and welfare, keeping your possessions in one piece, saving money over other options--these are all great reasons why having a trusted cat-sitter should be your first choice if you have to go away and leave your feline friend at home. There are other, secondary benefits to hiring a sitter as well.
For one, your cat-sitter also serves as your house-sitter. Knowing that someone you can trust is watching over your home, as well as its feline occupant, can provide peace of mind while you are out of town, out of the state, or even out of the country. All your stuff is in that house--and you want to make sure it stays there. The visible presence of a human caretaker can be the best deterrent to anything unfortunate happening at your home during your absence. (Throughout my career, I billed myself as providing “housecatsitting” services to make clear the “double-value” of my presence in clients’ homes.) At the very least, it is nice to have someone pick up and sort your mail (and toss out the junk) while you’re gone!
If your cat was adopted after having been rescued as a feral, and still has a bit of a wild streak in her, having a sitter present in the house--giving her a continuous human presence--can help her maintain the process of getting habituated to the housecat lifestyle. During my shelter-volunteer days, I socialized with many adoptable cats who had had a rough start in life. The thing that gets such cats comfortable with being in a human household, with a human family, is--and this should be no surprise--spending time with at least one human on a regular basis. Leaving such a cat alone for too long, without that close human companionship, could encourage her to backslide and lose some of her tolerance for house life. A sitter can help avoid that lost ground.
Finally, there’s one more benefit to having a family cat-sitter, perhaps the best benefit of them all: you and your cat may very well make a lifelong friend. I can vouch, from the cat-sitter’s perspective, how much I appreciated the people I met through recommendations for sitting gigs. I remain in touch with many of those good people to this day, even after retiring from my cat-sitting career. It should be no surprise that you can make good friends with someone who cares for your cat; you already have something very important in common with your sitter: your love of cats! I am always delighted to receive pictures of my former kitty clients from their human family members, and I like to think that whenever I get a chance to visit my old feline friends, they remember the bonds we made during our stays together, and that they are glad to see me.
I have little doubt about it: if you love your cat (and who doesn’t?), you will want what's best for her, and having a sitter come and stay with your kitty, in her own home, feeding her her own food, allowing her to use her own litter box, and sharing play and cuddle time with her, is absolutely the best way to go!
Now that we’ve settled why you need a cat-sitter, our next piece of YCWDT! bonus content will ask and answer that other fundamental question: How exactly do you get a good cat-sitter anyway?
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